The GAA can rightly be described as one of the greatest sporting organisations in the world – and, as we all know, it is much more than just a sporting organisation. It has had a profound impact on local communities all over Ireland, giving those communities a sense of identity and belonging.
I have always believed in the importance of sport in the lives of all, but for our young people in particular. In terms of personal development, community spirit and social inclusion, sport can reach people and places that others might dream about. It might be no harm to ponder the following questions: Where would some of these communities take their identity from, or what would they rally around, or what would people do for a meaningful sporting and social outlet, if it weren’t for the GAA?
Like most of you reading this article I am enormously proud of the tremendous role the GAA has played in the unfolding chapters of our history and heritage. I am justifiably proud to have been part of a great organisation that still creates enormous excitement 25 years into its second century. I feel privileged to be an active member of the GAA, and as a player and subsequent manager it has dominated a large chunk of my life, very often to the detriment of other important issues in my life. But if it did, it has provided me with a lifetime of memories and friends both here at home and overseas. I was lucky enough and privileged to have been involved on All Ireland final days with my native county and my home club on a few occasions and I could think of no place on this earth that would have been better on such occasions.
The excitement when your local club team makes a county final or for the really lucky ones an All-Ireland club final is particularly memorable. The ex-pats flying home from all parts of the world, the hunt for that ticket that money can’t buy, the flags going up around the parish, the local national school children writing songs and poems, the sense of excitement, the desire for one glorious day when every player plays the match of his life. These are just some of the highlights of my sporting life, just some of the things that I remember for the rest of my life. The GAA has provided me with those memories and those wonderful days.
I cannot imagine life without the GAA. What would I do on a Sunday without the opportunity of going to, watching or listening to a game on radio? I recall occasions when I served overseas with the United Nations travelling for hours on a Sunday just to hear a game on radio - to feel the buzz and excitement that a match invariably generates.
One of three cornerstones
The GAA is one of the three cornerstone organisations of Ireland for the last 125 years, the Catholic Church, and politics being the other two. If we look back at the relatively short few decades to the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, we see that Ireland was a depressed place economically, with emigration draining away the lifeblood of the country. Those were trying times for the GAA as the wave of emigration cost local communities many of their finest footballers and hurlers. We have come full circle in this regard with many clubs again experiencing difficult times with a drain of young quality footballers leaving our shores in search of employment. But those who are forced to leave rarely lose touch with activities on the football and hurling fields back at home. Indeed, many of them immediately immersed themselves in the thriving GAA culture in the major cities such as London, Birmingham, New York, Boston and Chicago.
‘Pride in the parish’ has long been a catch call for GAA people. It sounds like a cliché, but it is still a marvellous thing that ‘pride in the parish’ has not diminished in the last 20 years, even when Ireland underwent a raft of social and demographic changes. Former players still give something back to their clubs, and clubs continue to develop wonderful facilities in every town and parish in the country. The great thing about the GAA is that there is room for everyone – you don’t have to be a potential Ciaran McDonald or Colm McManamon to play a key role in your local GAA club.
The GAA promoted social inclusion long before the term was even coined. It is a class-free organisation where wealth or employment status is not considered. All human life goes there. It has helped to curb the issue of loneliness for many people who may not have an immediate family around them – in many cases, the GAA became their family, and the role the GAA has played in giving people something to live for, somewhere to go for companionship, has perhaps been under-stated throughout the years.
For young people, the value of learning about teamwork and the fact that hard work brings its own rewards is also worth considering. Being competitive is infectious – young people who learn to compete fiercely but fairly on a football or hurling field can transport the insights gained to their world of study and employment. They learn to push themselves, to achieve heights they might not have thought possible, and that is a good thing in a world where there are many rewards for those with the right attitude.
Where to for the GAA?
However, the GAA cannot rest on its laurels. And I know it won’t, because it never has. The demographic changes in the country mean that the old structures are under a severe test – take, for example, the proliferation of housing estates in the medium-sized and large urban areas around Ireland.
It may not be enough for the GAA to continue to rely on its club structures to deal with the challenges thrown up by this shift in residential patterns. In some places, the GAA has already set up ‘hurling on the green’ schemes, and street leagues, to provide football and hurling for the young people living in these estates. This means creating a structure beneath the existing club structure, with the hope that once hooked (excuse the pun ), the young people will then become involved in the local club. This is a major issue for the clubs in these areas. They must have the wherewithal and the desire to go into the housing estates and showcase their sports there.
If not, these young people will find another sport or drift off into a lifetime of disinterest and disillusionment, with potentially devastating effects for society.
I believe the GAA can, once again, make a crucial contribution to Irish society by intervening in these larger estates and leading the way forward. As we look forward to the next 25 years, it is only right and proper that we pause to consider where we have come from as a nation, and where we wish to go in the future. One thing we can be sure of is that Gaelic games will continue to play a key, central role in the life of the nation.
We are now treading the footsteps of the great GAA leaders who went before us, and in the footsteps of the many thousands of quiet and unsung men and women, who kept the flame alive. We in this generation are called upon to do our utmost to bind together all our strong traditions on this island and with the amazing resurgence in the popularity and public enthusiasm for our national games, we will not be found wanting.